Jim Rosborough walked across a nearly empty gym the other day at Pima’s West Campus to a cart full of basketballs. Practice ended a few minutes previously with the Aztec women preparing for a trip to the national tournament. Pima does not have an equipment manager, so the 75-year-old Rosborough took the responsibility of putting the balls away much like he did when he started his coaching career at Corkery Middle School on Chicago’s west side in 1970.
“He’s mad if anybody else does it,” Pima coach Todd Holthaus said.
Rosborough was on top of the college basketball world 23 years ago as a longtime assistant at Arizona under Lute Olson, putting together the gameplan to beat Kentucky in the national championship at Indianapolis.
An assistant with the Aztecs, going on almost six years, Rosborough still feels like he is one with the Basketball Gods. He went from preparing for college basketball’s spectacle of the Final Four to helping to coach Pima to a potential title at the NJCAA Division II tournament at Port Huron, Mich. The tournament was originally postponed by the NJCAA until April 20 because of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. The NJCAA cancelled the event today.
Rosborough, when preparing for the national tournament last week, said, “It’s still the same feeling,” as when he annually went with Arizona and Olson to the NCAA tournament. This was Rosborough’s second time in as many years that he was part of a regional title team and that he reached the national tournament with Pima. He was also with the Aztecs when they made it that far in 2016.
“I believe I do bring some things,” Rosborough said. “Experience does count for something. I don’t want to sound egotistical by saying that, but there’s not going to be a whole lot at our level that we have not seen before.”
Rosborough coaches with Holthaus alongside a set of coaches any head coach would want to hire. The group includes former Tucson High School volleyball and basketball standout Nalani Hernandez, proven recruiter Pete Fajardo and Arizona’s legendary world-class distance thrower Carla Garrett as the strength and conditioning coach.
Hernandez joined the staff this season after serving as an assistant at Tohono O’odham Community College last year. She has also coached at Panola College at Carthage, Texas, and at Western New Mexico, where she was a standout from 2014-16. She played her first two seasons in college at Southern Oregon. While at Panola, Hernandez showed her wit on and off the court, also serving as the school’s sports information contact, writing reports after the games, including quotes from players and coaches.
Fajardo, a PE teacher at an elementary school in the Tucson Unified School District, has a long history of success as a coach in Tucson. He coached the Salpointe girls basketball team from 2002-06, Sahuaro boys from 2007-09, and Catalina Foothills girls from 2009-14. In 2003, in his first season as a head coach, he led Salpointe, a team that included Sybil Dosty and Kellie Olson (Lute’s granddaughter) to a 31-2 record and spot in the state championship game.
Garrett is an Arizona Sports Hall of Famer after winning three NCAA individual titles in 1989 and becoming a 10-time All-American in the shot put and discus events. In 1989, she captured NCAA titles in the indoor shot put and outdoor shot and discus, becoming the first woman since 1982 to win both events. She became the first Arizona woman to win a Pac-10 individual title, setting a meet and career conference record with a discus throw of 198 feet, 5 inches. Garrett also serves as the strength and conditioning coach for Salpointe’s football team. With her demanding, yet endearing style, Garrett is one of only a few people who can keep Texas-bound Bijan Robinson in check with what he must do physically to improve.
In the last five seasons after Rosborough and Fajardo joined Holthaus’ operation in 2014-15, Pima has compiled a record of 123-46 with three regional titles and three trips to the NJCAA Division II tournament. A five-year span for an assistant coach at the junior college level is not common, but veteran coaches such as Rosborough and Fajardo are not trying to use their experience as a stepping stone like many others in their position.
Holthaus said the camaraderie he has with Rosborough, Fajardo, Hernandez and Garrett is “paramount, to be honest, in terms of everybody pulling in the same direction.”
“The cool part as the head coach is … I don’t know, some head coaches have to watch behind their back a little bit, just to make sure no one’s trying to get the job. But here, it’s just been like I don’t ever worry about that because everybody is comfortable with what we do. Everybody’s on the same page. Everybody loves their role. So as the head coach, I have very little to worry about other than just getting the kids ready.”
Ros: “They all adore him, they love him”
Rosborough and Holthaus do most of the X’s and O’s on the court and they do the game-to-game planning. They both have a common bond with Iowa. Holthaus is from West Union, Iowa. Rosborough lettered at Iowa and later coached there under Olson from 1974-83. He initially joined Olson’s staff because of his background in Chicago and ability to recruit there. He drew four starters from the Windy City for Iowa’s Final Four team in 1979-80, including All‑Americans Ronnie Lester and Kevin Boyle. Rosborough did not come to Tucson with Olson in 1983-84 but stayed at Iowa as an assistant under athletic director Bump Elliott. He was an assistant at Tulsa in 1985-86 and served as head coach at Northern Illinois from 1986-89.
When assistant Kevin O’Neill left to coach at Marquette after the 1988-89 season, following Sean Elliott’s senior year, Rosborough became reunited with Olson at Arizona. The relationship would last another 18 years through Olson’s final season of 2006-07.
Out of basketball for about seven years, which included a stint as an assistant with the Arizona women’s tennis team from 2010-14, Rosborough — an “old-school hard worker,” Hernandez said — reached out to Holthaus to be a volunteer coach for him midway through the 2014-15 season when the Aztecs were struggling through a 17-14 season.
“I helped him with the zone (defense) and shooting and some other things,” Rosborough said. “I was here probably four days a week. We’ve gotten along really well. It’s a good fit. We’ve been successful, and so on and so forth.”
Rosborough then flashed that grin that is synonymous with his warm personalty.
“So, I mean, the biggest problem is how long is the older guy going to hold up? You know, that’s the bigger problem,” he said. “I like it here. I like the girls. We get along well, This is the kind of place that is good to work at. (He and Holthaus) can just watch film, and get the girls prepared. It’s been a good relationship.”
With the age difference between Rosborough and the players — about a 55-year gap — the Aztecs likely know nothing about him when they start their career at Pima. Senegal import Fama Thiam surely did not recognize him just like longtime Tucsonan Alyssa Perez, a former Marana standout, did not comprehend his long, storied background when she joined the program last year.
“I make sure that I tell them about Ros because I always want them to be appreciative for who they have,” Holthaus said. “They have no clue. If you asked these girls if they knew the story of Jim Rosborough, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. But I always make sure I make a point when Ros is not around to hit them with it because they need to know how lucky they are. They all adore him. They love him. They don’t grasp the magnitude of the man they have, but at the same time, they appreciate him.”
Hernandez: “I’m more like a big sister”
Hernandez, known as Nalani Barnes during her Tucson High School career, is only five years removed from completing her career at Western New Mexico, where she was a preseason defensive player of the year selection as a senior in 2014-15. She epitomizes to her players the determination it takes to complete a successful career by being a team player, not by being the leading scorer or the all-conference headliner. She started half of her games in her four years at Southern Oregon and Western New Mexico (53 out of 106 games). She posted more rebounds (671) than points (644) in her career. She tallied 148 steals and 72 blocks. Imagine those numbers if she played more than the 22.7 minutes a game she averaged in her career and if her knee problems did not limit her to 19 games as a senior.
She can relate to all of the Aztecs, whether they are starters or contributors off the bench. She does so with a younger voice than her fellow coaches, who are a generation older than her.
“I’m at that age where I’m not necessarily like the mother role yet, but I’m more of like a big sister,” Hernandez said. “That’s really cool for me that I can be that kind of mentor for them and kind of also explain to them that I’ve been there before. I’ve been playing in their shoes. And I know what it’s like to transfer and play at a different level.”
Hernandez earned her masters degree in business administration at Western New Mexico, a goal she completed in order to fulfill her long-term goal of becoming a head coach. She presently is working as the business coordinator at Mr. Car Wash, handling fleet accounts for police vehicles and termite company trucks, for example.
Her bond with the Pima program started in the summer of 2018 when she served as an assistant with the Tucson Rattlers’ girls basketball youth program under Chris Klassen, an Aztec assistant at the time who also earlier in his career coached Bryce Cotton at Palo Verde. Klassen, who still operates the Rattlers, is now an assistant at Knox College at Galesburg, Ill.
Holthaus believes it is a matter of time to when Hernandez is winning games as a high school coach, building her resume for coaching at a higher level if she so desires. She will do that because of her relationship-building skills, he says.
“She comes in and is ready to do whatever is asked of her. She’s always supportive of the girls,” Holthaus said. “She’s kind of like that bridge between the coach and the players because she’s been on their side and she’s trying to transition to this side. So it’s a great bridge to have in terms of Just keeping the kids on the same page as the head coach.
“if I need to know anything, she’s obviously has my ear. She’s a good liaison between the two. And she’s young, but she’s special because she has a great personality. So that just makes it so much better. I love having her around.”
What better environment to learn her coaching craft? She has a 13-year head coach in Holthaus, who has six regional titles and 290 career victories, a seasoned coach like Rosborough who has won at the highest level in college, a recruiting expert in Fajardo who is responsible for building Pima’s consistent winning lineups and a world-class strength and condition expert like Garrett.
“Ros, he’s really old school about his ways so you learn to stick with the fundamentals and the tradition of things. He’s like a father figure,” Hernandez said. “Pete has such a knack for recruiting and attracting the right girls. So I talk to him all the time and ask questions like, ‘How do you you know? What do you look for? What do you do? What do you see? Why are you doing this? With all of the coaches, even if they think I’m annoying for the first five seconds, they’re willing to answer my questions.
“With Carla, I don’t know anything about strength and conditioning and she knows literally everything about the body, so she brings me some good tips. Todd brings us all together. I learn a lot from him on and off the court.”
Fajardo: “Just a good dude, egoless”
Fajardo is the person responsible for bringing Pima’s best player in history — career-scoring leader J.J. Nakai — to the Aztec program from Flagstaff Coconino High School four years ago. That alone shows his value to Holthaus, who was told by Fajardo to watch Nakai play after he arranged for Coconino to play at tournament at Cholla High School in 2016. Holthaus offered her a scholarship on the spot. Nakai played her first season at Nevada this year after compiling a school-record 1,397 points and 442 assists in her two seasons with the Aztecs.
After his final season at Catalina Foothills in 2013-14, Fajardo reached out to Holthaus, a former coaching rival when Fajardo was at Salpointe and Holthaus at Flowing Wells, for a spot on his staff. Holthaus coached the Caballeros from 1998-2005, about the same time Fajardo led the Lancers from 2002-06. They were both in the 5A Southern Region.
“I reached out to Todd and asked him if he needs help with anything, I would work hard, collect balls, be a manager, anything, it was okay with me,” Fajardo said. “I was more of a volunteer the first year or so and as some other coaches left, I was able to kind of move up the bench
“Obviously, having that familiarity with Todd, coaching against each other, it was just kind of like, okay, this is where I really want to be. And it came to a point in which beside the coaching duties, I became more like a recruiting coordinator. Todd had that trust in me to bring in the right players.”
Flowing Wells and Salpointe often met in front of crowds of more than 600 with the regional title always on the line. When Fajardo realized he was not returning to Catalina Foothills in 2015, he knew his one-time adversary, Holthaus, would help him stay involved in the game because they developed a friendship through their competition.
“My immediate thought was I just thought back to all the classic wars we had,” Holthaus said. “When Salpointe played Flowing Wells, it was like the Game of the Decade, or the Game of the Year. Pete’s a good dude, he’s another one that’s pretty egoless. He just wants to be with the kids. He just wants to help.
“In all honesty, he was eager to go watch millions of basketball games, recruiting-wise because he doesn’t have kids and (his wife) Becky is at Sahuaro as a trainer, so there are nights that he feels he might as well go watch games because she will be at Sahuaro’s games. It’s worked out well. He is kind of our tentacles to go out and see what’s out there for recruits and starting to develop those relationships, get them to a point where they come on campus.”
Fajardo’s diligent recruiting effort has also allowed Holthaus “to be a dad,” Holthaus said. Holthaus spends more time at home with his four kids and was able to watch his oldest daughter, Makayla, play her senior year with Ironwood Ridge this season. Holthaus and Fajardo wanted Makayla to play for Pima, naturally, but she signed with four-year NAIA program Ottawa University in Phoenix.
Family is important to Holthaus, hence his image as an endearing figure with his staff and players. A former Grand Canyon player, Holthaus is a towering presence at 6-foot-9. He has a goatee on his chin. He looks like a bouncer but is far from menacing. That image belies his open personality.
Holthaus said he is often asked if Pima is his last destination. Will he try to coach at a higher level? He has come this far leading an Aztec program for 13 years with annual success despite the turnover of personnel every two years. He has developed a love for Tucson, marrying his wife Jennifer and raising their four kids here.
Jennifer brought him to Tucson after they met in Phoenix when he was teaching third grade at Estrella Mountain Elementary School and she was a student at Arizona. Twice he tried to interview for a job in the Flowing Wells School District, but both times, his grandfather and father passed away within two months of each other. Flowing Wells tried one more time with a PE teacher opening at Homer Davis Elementary. Holthaus took the position in 1997. Within two years, he was coaching at Flowing Wells. After his seven years with the Caballeros, he became an assistant under Joan Bonvicini at Arizona from from 2005-07 before taking the Pima job.
“I do get asked if I want to coach at another level,” Holthaus said. “The reality is I did the D-1 thing for a couple of years. I learned a lot. I learned you don’t get to see your family very often. Until my kids are at a point in their lives where I don’t have to be around every day, then maybe. But I love working at Pima. I love the JUCO level because you can impact lives still.”
The Holthaus’ youngest child is in kindergarten, so Holthaus will likely be entrenched at Pima for almost another decade.
“My wife and I have roots in Tucson now; we like it here,” Holthaus said. “I’ve learned what it’s like to chase the other side of the fence. I got to taste it a couple of years, but I’m good where I’m at.”
Chasing a national title at Pima continues to drive him. The opportunity for him to achieve that first one was taken away today when the NJCAA announced all spring sports competition and the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments have been cancelled because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sophomores can keep their year of eligibility for next season, but for now, Holthaus and his staff are thinking more about the players’ futures as they move on. Perez might take the next step to a four-year school. The same goes for accomplished sophomores Hallie Lawson, Marlena Arroyo-Plata and Haile Gleason. That veteran core enabled Pima to improve week-to-week this season after Nakai and fellow All-American Sonia Bribiescas exhausted their eligibility.
“This was one of the most satisfying seasons I’ve ever had coaching,” Holthaus messaged me today after learning of the cancellation of the national tournament. “Only four sophomores and a bunch of eager freshmen figured out quickly how to come together, have each other’s backs and surprise everyone.
“I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for this team.”
Holthaus’s coaching staff will likely remain intact unless Hernandez lands a high school coaching position because of her promise as a young coach. Rosborough and Fajardo mentioned they don’t foresee changes with them and Garrett appears to be entrenched in Tucson after leaving briefly to her native New Mexico in recent years only to return shortly thereafter.
“Looking back, we’ve done it the right way,” Holthaus said. “We work hard. That’s probably the thing I preach most to the kids, ‘You just have to work hard.’ And if you don’t work hard, then you can’t expect things to go your way. You have to break things into your favor, and that comes from doing all the stuff that nobody else wants to do. Our staff embodies that work ethic.”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.